Florida gun dealer who smuggled AK-47s in water heaters to Brazil sentenced to 13 years

Frederik Barbieri
Frederik Barbieri Miami Herald file

A gun dealer who pocketed millions from selling weapons to criminals in his native Brazil was sentenced to about 13 years in prison on Thursday for smuggling more than 1,000 firearms — including assault-style rifles hidden in water heaters shipped from Miami to Rio de Janeiro.

Frederik Barbieri, 47, who was arrested with a cache of weapons at his Florida home, admitted in Miami federal court that he exported high-powered rifles with obliterated serial numbers to Brazil, where guns are sold on the black market to street gangs and drug traffickers in the favelas, or slums, of urban areas. Barbieri appeared on the feds’ radar after one of his loads was confiscated last year at Rio de Janeiro’s airport.

Barbieri, who was born in Brazil and became a naturalized U.S. citizen, faced a maximum of 25 years in prison on two charges to which he pleaded guilty in May: conspiracy to smuggle weapons to a foreign country and violations of firearm export licensing laws.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno gave him a slight break under the sentencing guidelines for his conviction because Barbieri has assisted federal and Brazilian authorities in the massive gun-smuggling investigation. Barbieri’s defense attorney said he was helping Brazilian investigators target a high-ranking police officer in the South American country who extorted about $1 million from him. In fact, a Brazilian investigator sat next to U.S. agents in the courtroom during Barbieri’s sentencing.

“I made about $3 million, but I didn’t get to keep it all,” Barbieri told the judge, adding he had huge expenses, including paying off the Brazilian police officer.

Barbieri, though charged alone with illegally exporting weaponry to violent gangs and narco-traffickers in Brazil, collaborated with others in his illicit gun-distribution network, said a federal prosecutor, who pushed for a sentence in the 20-year range. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Shack said Barbieri was a major firearms dealer who fueled the “war zone” between street gangs and Brazilian police in the favelas. “This is on a larger scale than Brazil has ever seen,” Shack said, describing the death toll.

Barbieri’s defense attorney, Leonard Fenn, argued that Barbieri deserved a sentence in the 10-year range because he has been supplying information “at great personal risk” not only on others in his gun-smuggling network but also on the Brazilian law enforcement officer who shook him down for a piece of his weapons deals.

“He essentially blackmailed the defendant,” Fenn said, pointing out that the Brazilian officer even visited Barbieri’s home in Port St. Lucie during the summer of 2017.

Fenn said his client was threatened by the officer after one of Barbieri’s shipments was intercepted at Rio de Janeiro’s airport by Brazilian authorities in May 2017. They found 30 AR-15 and AK-47 rifles, along with firearm magazines, all hidden in four 38-gallon Rheem water heaters.

The water heaters were hollowed out and loaded with firearms whose serial numbers were obliterated, according to the prosecutor. Shack said that on the day that Brazilian authorities intercepted his shipment, Barbieri called the freight forwarder to destroy the paperwork for his illegal shipment.

Federal agents said they obtained documents from the freight forwarder showing a history of Barbieri’s suspicious shipments to Rio de Janeiro. Barbieri had also shipped an additional 120 Rheem water heaters, as well as 520 electric motors and 15 air-conditioning units, over the previous five years. Agents suspected these items were used to conceal Barbieri’s illegal shipments of firearms and ammunition dating back to 2013.

Shack said that because it is illegal for Brazilians to possess firearms, assault-style rifles have a black market value of $15,000 to $20,000. In the United States, the retail cost of an AR-15 or AK-47 rifle runs between $700 and $1,000 each.

When agents with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations searched Barbieri’s warehouse in Vero Beach in February, they found 52 assault-type rifles, almost all of which had obliterated serial numbers and were wrapped for shipment. In addition, agents said they found dozens of high-capacity firearm magazines, more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition and packaging materials.

The following day, Barbieri was arrested at his home in Port St. Lucie, where he lived with his wife and daughter.